At the start of a long tour, in the friendly confines of Bowery Ballroom, White Lies sat down with QRO. In the conversation, bassist Charles Cave, drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown, and singer/guitarist Harry McVeigh talked about their new album, Big TV (QRO review), returning to Bowery (QRO venue review), returning to Corona Capital Festival in Mexico, leaving home, eavesdropping for lyrics, remembering lyrics (or not…), and more…
QRO: Great show last night! This is the start of your tour, right?
Jack Lawrence-Brown: We’re touring pretty much solidly until Christmas.
QRO: What’s it like, being back at Bowery Ballroom?
Harry McVeigh: It’s great. It’s one of the venues you wish you could play every night. It’s a lot smaller, but I think I liken it to Brixton Academy in London, which is where we’ve played a bunch of times of the years, and we’ve always had good memories. Very electric crowd.
Last night, everyone looked so happy, which is amazing to see. Especially in a city where there’s an abundance of live music. Every night, anyone could be seeing one of hundreds of bands, musicians playing everywhere, and everyone just looked really pleased to be there, actually genuinely excited by what was going on on stage. So it was great.
QRO: Do you prefer doing two nights at a smaller space like this, or one night at a bigger one, like you did in your last NYC visit, at Terminal 5 (QRO venue review)?
HM: I would so much rather do this, personally.
Charles Cave: I think the best headline shows we had in London were back-to-back, in Brixton. In terms of vibe, it’s probably one of the best venues in the world.
HM: We’re doing another one of our favorite venues in Brussels, AB.
We had a lot of experience, early on, playing with big arena bands, supporting them – Snow Patrol, Coldplay, Muse and all those… It’s really good fun, and it’s a very important experience, learning curve, for bands to have. But after a while, you feel a bit alienated, being so far away, from some people, anyway. Staring into this crowd that turns into a void in the back, shadows & seats. So it’s nice to see the color of people’s eyes; it’s more personal.
JLB: We had to beg for [two nights at the same place] to happen.
CC: It’s really nice thing to do, if you can.
I mean, it sounds like a really simple thing, but it’s wonderful to leave all your stuff overnight – leave it, go out and party, and come back and it’s all ready the next day.
JLB: In my experience, the second show is always more enjoyable than the first one. ‘Cause the first one, you usually feel the pressure of doing somewhere that’s sold out. The second night, you’re a lot more relaxed, enjoy the whole thing.
Yesterday, I was so relaxed anyway, so I had lot of fun yesterday…
QRO: After America, you’ll be playing Mexico – have you played Mexico before?
CC: We have.
HM: I found out that we’re the first band to play [Corona Capital] Festival twice. We’re the first band ever to be asked back, which is nice.
JLB: Yeah, they love us in Mexico. It’s amazing. It’s one of our biggest sort of ‘territories’ that we can go to. We can sell – I’m sure we probably only sell a couple hundred albums there; people probably don’t buy albums – but we can put on big shows there.
It’s very, very, very odd, because the first time you go there, and you’re playing in something that’s like 1500 people, and you’ve never been to the country before, it’s a sort of bizarre experience, to go from zero to that level, so quickly.
But they just get it. Everyone there, all their journalists, who we do interviews with, they seem to really love us. It’s quite a rare experience for us, actually. It’s quite a positive culture, I think, with the music they’re liking, I suppose. I certainly enjoy playing there a lot. Really great crowds, always.
White Lies playing “To Lose My Life” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: How was making Big TV?
HM: It was great, actually. We had a good time making the album.
I think this was the first time we really, before we undertook it, we decided to focus on the songwriting in it. We tried to hone our songwriting much more than I think we’ve ever done before. We took a long time to do it – the writing part of the album took seven or eight months.
It’s very difficult to say you enjoy every part of making an album. In a lot of ways, it’s very hard work; it’s intense. But, the overall process, I found very satisfying. I felt very fulfilled by it, by the time we finished it. I was very happy with the way it turned out. Just a record that we’ll always be very proud of. In ten years time, we’ll still enjoy it – maybe even still enjoy playing it, if people still want to see it.
QRO: How did it compare with making the prior two records?
HM: It was very different, I think.
I think both of the first two records were very different from each other, as well.
The first album (To Lose My Life – QRO review) was obviously a whirlwind – I don’t remember too many details about making it. We were sort of rushed to our feet, teenagers basically, nineteen.
And then the second one (Ritual – QRO review), I think we got swept up in technology, and sonics. And we really enjoyed making that album, but it’s something that, again, I think we sort of grew out of, with this record. We’re sort of ‘down to earth’ now – we’re not worried about trying to be cool, or we’re not worried about trying to live up to any sort of expectation. We know what we want, and we’ll work at it until we got it, basically.
White Lies playing “Unfinished Business” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: Like you say, you started at nineteen – do you feel like you’ve grown up, while as a band?
HM: I think everyone grows up…
JLB: I’m not very grown up…
CC: Not very grown up…
JLB: I’m still a pretty childish, personality-wise, perhaps.
CC: I think the most important thing is that – me personally, and I’m pretty sure the other two are the same ballpark as this – I listen to probably six hours of music a day, at least. When I’m at home, certainly. Like out-and-about, with headphones, or at home – everything I do during the day at home is soundtracked by music. I think doing that over five years, just you develop a really broad vocabulary of references and things to draw upon.
So that’s what really matures you, I think, as a musician. Personally, I think, actually even more than experience, sometimes. Just constantly listening to different music, all the time. Figuring out what you like, figuring out what you don’t like. To be exploring that, the more you do that, obviously the better you get…
QRO: For Big TV, why did you do the two short instrumentals, “Space I & II”?
HM: I think a lot of the albums that we love, and actually I love even more since making Big TV, have things – it’s all about prog, really – they have things like that in them.
I think it makes it more like an album. It’s not just a bunch of songs thrown together. ‘Cause they’re bits of other songs, basically.
I think it’s something that we’ll do again. I hope we’ll do it again. It’s just really nice to make it an interesting piece of musical work, rather than a bunch of songs thrown together.
QRO: Adding those two did make it the first White Lies record that wasn’t ten tracks…
HM: It’s sort of still ten songs.
CC: I think the other thing is, no doubt about it, even though we have different styles of song, different moods to each song, we make fairly intense music, even if it’s a ballad, or if it’s a pop song, whatever – it’s quite full-on, always. So it’s nice to break that up, a little bit. They’re almost kinda like two deep breaths, in between the record.
QRO: How did you come to have Michael Kagan do the artwork?
HM: That was just a friend of a friend, of Charles’.
We were sort of desperately clawing for something that might look good on our album cover. Quite frustrating, working with some designers, who had just lots of crazy – they looked like the cover of fifties jazz records.
We were very lucky that he sort of popped up in our world. We didn’t know him for his paintings.
JLB: Just walking past [his exhibition], seeing the album cover on the wall, I just had a moment, looking at it, thinking, “We’re never gonna have an album cover that good again.” Like, we really lucked out…
I think it’s fuckin’ amazing, in hindsight, and it was so lucky! Because there are so many occasions where you’ve got a mate who says, “Hey, I’ve got this buddy, he’s a painter – you should check out his work…” Come on…
And it just totally clicked. We’ve been very fortunate, a lot of things on this record have happened like that. Things have just slotted into place, it felt very natural.
White Lies playing “Fairwell To the Fairground” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: A number of the songs have lyrics that tell particular stories – do any of them come from real life? Like, is there a fairground from “Farewell To the Fairground”?
CC: No, that one was definitely not a literal fairground.
I think I spend a lot of time, when I’m out & about, eavesdropping on other people. I’m very interested to hear what people are talking about, what’s going on in other people’s lives.
And equally, for this record, we collectively have a lot of friends who are effectively ‘aliens in London’ – they moved there from somewhere else. Or we have a lot of friends from London, who’ve now moved to other countries. Hearing their stories about the transitioning process into a new home, trying to fit in.
In fact, even a friend who came last night, just moved to New York, without knowing anyone here, and not having a job prospect, or home or anything like this. I find that fascinating – and that was inspired this record.
QRO: Is it at all weird to hear people sing out lines like, “And die at the same time” or “Fear’s got a hold on me,” but they sing it out excitedly? They’re really dark lines, but everyone’s almost happy, singing…
HM: I think when you put a bunch of people in a room, watching a band, they’re probably not thinking too much about words. They’re just enjoying the moment.
They’re euphoric songs, though. I think it’s a really nice feeling, to see people enjoy the music.
White Lies playing “Death” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: And [Harry,] do you think you’ll be comfortable enough with “Be Your Man” to go without the lyric sheet?
HM: You know what? I don’t know what it is about that song – I just can’t remember the lyrics for it, ever! It’s just really weird. There’s just something about that song.
JLB: I like the idea of it just becoming a long-running joke. Ten years from now, whenever we play that song, Harry just says, “This is quite new; I can’t remember the lyrics yet…”
HM: I’d love it if the fans, the front row, organized to bring the lyrics, in just massive letters, have it out…
QRO: Have you ever accidentally started reading off of the set list instead of the lyric sheet?
HM: I’ve fucked up lyrics for that song so many times – I don’t need anything more…
QRO: Do the songs go over any differently in non-English-speaking countries? You said you’re big in Mexico, and you’ve done continental Europe quite a lot…
HM: I think our fans invest a lot of time in understanding the lyrics to our songs. Certainly the ones we meet, anyway…
By and large, it’s just amazing how – and I feel quite ashamed about it – everyone seems to speak English, and I can’t speak a second language. Which is a real shame. People’s understanding of English is generally very good.
White Lies playing “Mother Tongue” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: Do you still rehearse in the same place that you started in, in northwest London?
CC: Oh, no – we’ve moved now.
HM: Jack still practices in there, though.
JLB: Yeah, I still use it, for a drum room. It’s pretty nice. It’s kind of crummy area of London. It’s quite enjoyable – it’s just cheap and easy.
I do have a lot of good memories. Every time I go in there, I think about how, before we played our first-ever show, we locked ourselves in this rehearsal space for a couple of months, and just practiced until we were very, very confident. And then we started doing it with the lights out as well, so we could get really confident in everything, just feels very natural to ourselves. So I still have very good memories when I go back there.
We have moved on. There are certain demands, as we became a bigger band in the U.K., you know, you want to do a proper production rehearsal. It gets a bit expensive, less interesting for our rehearsal space, but that’s sort of the way it goes.
QRO: And have you finally gotten your own places to live, or are you still semi-nomadic?
JLB: We live with each other’s parents…
HM: It might be about three, three-and-a-half years now, we’ve moved out.
CC: We grew up.
HM: It was weird, actually, because the time between the first and second record was so intense, such a long period of time, that there was no point in getting another place to live, because we weren’t there. It’d just be like basically throwing money down the drain.
But it was nice, when we finally had time to really get our own places. I love it now; I love it, having my own base.
CC: It’s a treat…
QRO: But you all still live in London?
JLB: Yeah, we all still live in London.
HM: I only moved ten minutes down the road.
White Lies playing “First Time Caller” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: Where did you recruit Tommy Bowen and Rob Lee?
HM: We sort of poached Rob…
HM: He used to play with Friendly Fires – we’ve toured with them like three or four times, I think.
When we were finishing our second album, and they were sort of winding things down, or they were sort of in-between albums, we just asked Rob, on the off chance whether he’d like to do it. And he said yes. So we’ve been very lucky with that.
JLB: Our live shows are infinitely better with Tommy and Rob in them. The step up between the first album and the second & third album, the live show has been much increased by having the extra people on stage. Really makes it sound like a proper rock show.
QRO: With now three albums, is it getting harder to make a set list, since you’ve got more songs, but not much more time?
HM: No – easier…
CC: We still find it really hard to make a set list.
JLB: As in, we’re still searching for enough songs…
HM: We’re still searching for enough songs. We always learn just enough, and then we get lazy.
JLB: I think we know the songs we want to play, though.
HM: Actually, we’ve got a really good set list. I’m really happy with it.
QRO: Is the set list going to be any different between the two nights at Bowery?
JLB: No. That’s the one we like; we’re really happy with it. It flows really nicely
Someone’s always going to be disappointed; someone’s not gonna hear their favorite song, probably – but we feel like we definitely cover 90% of what I think our fans want, and keep ourselves interested.
White Lies playing “Big TV” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013:
QRO: Is it just coincidence that the final two songs were “Big [TV]” & “Bigger [Than Us]”?
JLB: It is a coincidence…
HM: It is a great coincidence – love that!
JLB: It makes total sense!
QRO: And next album, are you gonna have a song with “Biggest”?
JLB: “Biggest TV”…
White Lies playing “Bigger Than Us” at Bowery Ballroom on October 3rd, 2013: